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$2.5 Million to Fight Disease, Bioterror

June 8, 2005 — The University of Utah will receive at least $2.5 million as part of a $40 million, six-state program to develop new ways to diagnose, prevent and treat emerging infectious diseases and fight bioterrorism.

The money coming to the U will be used to improve education and emergency preparedness for disease outbreaks and biological terrorism; convert basic laboratory findings into new medicines and vaccines to help patients; and determine why some people are genetically more susceptible than others to the West Nile virus.

“This is an exciting development for the university and for Utah,” says chemistry Professor Jill Trewhella, special projects director for the U’s Office of the Vice President for Research. “We are going to be working at the forefront of biomedical research to address emerging infectious diseases like West Nile virus and preparedness for defending our citizens in the event of a bioterrorist attack.”

The $40 million program – named the Rocky Mountain Regional Center for Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases – is headquartered at Colorado State University and includes 15 universities, hospitals and government agencies in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

A $40 million grant to the center was announced June 1 by the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is one of the National Institutes of Health. Another $40 million grant was announced the same day for a regional center led by the University of California, Irvine. Eight other centers covering the rest of the United States were set up in 2003 with $350 million. So the new centers bring the total to $430 million.

The Rocky Mountain center “is going to take advantage of this university’s excellence in human genetics and our medical school, with its capabilities in dealing with infectious diseases,” Trewhella says. “Our hospital and medical facilities will be networked with others in the state and the region to provide the best possible treatments and responses to outbreaks of infectious diseases.”

Barry Beaty, a Colorado State University virologist and director of the Rocky Mountain Regional Center for Excellence, says the consortium’s goal is to develop new vaccines, treatments and diagnostic methods for animal diseases that can be transmitted to humans. Such diseases include illnesses caused by the West Nile virus, hantavirus and equine encephalitis virus, as well as bacterial diseases such as plague and tularemia, or “rabbit fever.”

“If it’s a normal outbreak or by bioterrorism, you need to be able to respond,” Beaty says. “The idea is to help companies and industry develop products and get them out there to protect people and animals.”

Four University of Utah faculty members will run five projects for the regional effort. Preliminary four-year funding amounts and the projects are:

  • $1,294,729 to physician-geneticist Michael Bamshad, who will study “human susceptibility to West Nile virus, how different people respond to the infection and some get much sicker than others, and what the genetic basis for that is,” Trewhella says. (Media note: Bamshad is out of the country this week and not available for interviews.)
  • $594,163 to infectious disease physician Woody Spruance for postdoctoral fellowships to train physicians in infectious disease, particularly as it relates to potential bioterrorism. Spruance says the training will be for doctors who already have received their M.D. degrees and are undergoing subspecialty training in infectious disease.
  • $235,261, also to Spruance, for a regionwide educational program aimed at medical personnel, emergency responders and the public, including doctors in small towns who might be the first to detect an infectious disease outbreak. He says the program will include 15 to 20 lectures annually for four years.
  • $187,635 to Steve Kern, assistant professor and interim chair of the university’s Department of Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, who will lead the Regional Center for Excellence’s effort to convert the findings of research into new products to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious diseases. Kern says he will “help move promising research projects from the laboratory to the clinic for testing and evaluation,” including initial human trials of new medicines and other technological advances.
  • $187,635 to Colleen Connelly, emergency preparedness manager at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center, who will coordinate the Regional Center for Excellence’s examination of preparedness for an infectious disease outbreak or bioterrorism. Connelly says she will work to coordinate the federally funded program with existing state and local emergency preparedness efforts.

Beaty says the University of Utah’s total of $2,499,423 does not include equipment costs and new projects that will be added later.

Kern says that because the new program includes researchers from many institutions and academic disciplines, it “should speed the progress in developing effective strategies for infectious diseases and related potential bioterrorism threats.”

Spruance adds: “It strengthens our regional ability to react to bioterrorism or any outbreak of a new infectious disease.”